Women deserve all the credit as wine pioneers

March 26, 2012

A wonderful article titled Women Pioneers in Wine by Christina Zappel prompted this. I am a big fan of Veuve Clicquot Champagne. The nonvintage (NV) is Barbara's and my wine of choice for special occasions. Veuve Clicquot is actually the nickname for Barbe Nicole Ponsardin.

Mlle. Ponsardin married M. Cliquot at 21. On his death five years later, Veuve (French for widow) Clicquot took the reins of his business, which had interests in wool, banking and Champagne production. She was the daughter of a textile manufacturer and politician (the mayor of Rheims by Napoleonic decree), well educated and wealthy on her own account. She quickly improved the business. She invented the riddling technique and remuage still in use today.

In January 2001, Cecile Bonnefond became only the second woman to head the enterprise as the chairman and chief executive officer of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin SA and LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (which bought Veuve Clicquot in 1987).

A second name in the article is actually an acquaintance as well. Barbara and I met Zelma Long at Simi winery just after she had left Mondavi, where she was chief enologist. She left to become winemaker and vice president of Simi.  Simi was in neglect when Zelma took charge. She revamped the entire operation and then began producing top-rate wine. Mrs. Long was the second woman to graduate the masters program at UC Davis.

She broke the Cali glass ceiling and rose like a star into the worldwide winemaking firmament.

Her career there spanned 30 years, culminating in appointment as president and CEO. She and her first husband Bob own Long Vineyards in Napa. Although both are remarried, they and their spouses are business partners.

Zelma is retired, but working a fairly heavy advisory and consulting career. Long is an Oregonian. She graduated from Oregon State University and has returned, where she is helping move the region into the international spectrum with her star power. Some labels to look for that Long advises are: Abeja (ah-bay-ha) in Walla Walla, nice Viognier,  and Bookwalter Winery in Columbia (to research ratings, go to and click on Library of Success), Cuneo Cellars for Syrah, Buty Winery in Walla Walla for chards and Connor Lee Vineyards in Columbia Valley, where she advises on grape propagation. If you are smart, you will join a club or two of these. Small production and great write-ups coupled with Long advising are going to drive availability issues through the roof. Get in on the ground floor and write me a thank-you letter in 2017.

Finally, Mary Penfold, the widow of Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold, took over the winery at her husband’s death and within a few short years had in storage one-third of all wine in South Australia. Although, as a young couple, both were involved in establishing the Magill Estate and a stone home they named The Grange, Mrs. Penfold was the driving force behind this enterprise because her husband was thoroughly involved as a physician. Over time, her husband’s name had overtaken her effort.

It was Mary, though, who managed the business and was instrumental in innovative blending techniques and clonal investigation. Dr. Penfold died in 1870 and Mary continued to improve the estate through 1884. She determined in 1876 that she should not release her wine until it had cellared at least four years. Naturally the money boys went ballistic. She persevered, recognizing the power the wines intrinsically had and understanding the value of the extra cellaring.

Penfolds Grange is one of the world's most sought-after wines, due to her well-crafted planning. Of recent releases, 1998-2006, the wine has been rated 97, 98 or 99 points 13 times. The worst scores in that range are 92 points for the 2000 and 2003 vintages. The wine sells for $600-plus a bottle if a ready-to-drink vintage. Penfolds produces a wide range of product in more modest price ranges and it is rare they have a loser. Look for Penfolds RWT Shiraz 2008 priced under $30. I rate it 95. A conundrum: Australian top-flight wines are often made in American oak.

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